Meeting the Needs of People in Poverty?

By Simone Campbell, SSS, Executive Director of NETWORK,  www.networklobby.org, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, in Washington D.C.

Editor’s Note:  This article was reprinted with the permission of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.  It appeared in their Common Good Forum on October 27, 2010.

We have known for years that the redesign of our nation’s welfare system in the 1990s included a fundamental flaw. While moving people from welfare to work was a worthy goal, states were judged on how many people had left their welfare rolls rather than how many had been lifted out of poverty. That was a mistake.

When President Clinton signed the welfare reform law in 1996, impoverished people were no longer entitled to government assistance, a right guaranteed by the government since the 1930s. The new law called TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) replaced AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). This new federal block grant program included lifetime time limits for recipients of cash assistance and granted more control over program administration to the states.

Soon after TANF was signed into law, NETWORK began a series of studies to learn how people were faring. The results were mixed. With the economic boom of the 1990s, large numbers of people were able to move from welfare to work. That was clearly a hopeful sign. Along the way, work support programs like EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) and child care assistance made it possible for significant numbers of parents to support their families.

But there were also disturbing findings. Moving from welfare to employment did not necessarily move people out of poverty, and many families with one or even two wage-earners still had to turn to food banks and other emergency support agencies. Many others struggled in deepest poverty with little or no help.

Our latest study, conducted earlier this year, provided evidence that “welfare reform” did not provide enough supports to people struggling in the economic recession. Particularly problematic was the fact that many families who should be eligible for TANF were not enrolled.

In order to limit participants in TANF programs, states have limited outreach to eligible families, created complex application hurdles, set even tighter time limits and created other barriers. Our study indicated that the size of the TANF rolls does little to indicate the level of poverty or family desperation in any one state. Overburdened emergency services such as church-run food pantries and homeless shelters struggle to fill the gap.

With the recession came record-high poverty increases, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in September, 2010. Did our elected officials respond with urgent calls for improvements in TANF? Hardly. There was much talk about tax cuts and whether they should be extended for people making up to $250,000 — or more. Few officials seemed willing to focus on the needs of families struggling to get by on a tiny fraction of that amount. Not an election-winner.

So where do we go from here?

At NETWORK, we are calling on Congress to extend TANF until September 2011 so that needed improvements can be made during full hearings in the 112th Congress beginning in January. We are calling on our elected officials to make a number of improvements across the board to help struggling families. Our recommendations include:

• A focus on state poverty levels rather than TANF roll sizes to determine how well their people are doing;

• Improved coordination of services and interagency collaborations so more people — and people with more difficult issues — can get the help they need;

• Greater investment in human needs programs (Don’t address the deficit on the backs of people on the lowest economic rungs!);

• More subsidized job programs;

• Help for non-custodial parents, including job training and education programs;

• More help for people facing multiple job barriers such as mental illness, sick children, physical and intellectual disabilities, domestic abuse, and language barriers;

• Improved education programs to create effective pathways out of poverty; and

• More flexible and realistic time limits.

Congress can make a significant difference in the lives of people struggling with poverty by addressing these needs and more. Will they? We intend to be there at every step of the way to help make that happen.

Simone Campbell, SSS, is the Executive Director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, in Washington DC. For more information about NETWORK’s latest TANF study, read their report, “TANF Tested: Lives of Families in Poverty during the Recession,” published in July 2010 (www.networklobby.org/TANF_Report). More information about NETWORK is available at www.networklobby.org.

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